- Historic Sites
“The Air Age Was Now”
As well as being geniuses, the Wright brothers were methodical craftsmen of astonishing persistence. An aeronautical expert supplies the fascinating technical and personal details of their legendary achievement.
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
What is not commonly known—although the Wrights were fully aware of the fact—was that there was a growing race between them and Langley (of which Langley was totally unaware) to get into the skies with the first truly successful powered and controlled flight. Never having seen it, the brothers had felt they faced serious competition in Langley’s machine, but they did not know that Langley’s Aerodrome was in reality a travesty of aerodynamic design and that, despite its excellent engine, could not possibly fly. Neither Orville nor Wilbur, nor even Chanute with his knowledge of almost everything that was happening in flight research, truly understood how far ahead of the rest of the world the Wright brothers stood.
On October 18 Wilhur wrote to Katharine to bring her up to date on the events at the camp. As if to keep the brothers from brooding about the awesome task they had set for themselves, nature was keeping them well supplied with distractions.
“The second day opened with the gale still continuing with a steady drizzling rain. The wind veered from the northwest to the north during the morning and dropped to about 30 miles, but after dinner it began to back up again. We set to work ‘tooth and nail’ (using a hammer instead of our teeth however) putting braces inside our new building. The climax came about 4 o’clock when the wind reached 75 miles an hour. Suddenly a corner of our tar-paper roof gave way under the pressure and we saw that if the trouble were not stopped the whole roof would probably go. Orville put on my heavy overcoat, and grabbing the ladder sallied forth from the south end of the building. At first it appeared that he was going down to repair some of the rents in the Big Hill which was being badly torn to pieces, for he began by walking backwards about 50 feet. After awhile I saw him come back past the side opening in our partially raised awning door.… I sallied out to help him and after a tussle with the wind found him at the north end ready to set up the ladder. He quickly mounted to the edge of the roof when the wind caught his coat and folded it back over his head. As the hammer and nails were in his pocket and up over his head he was unable to get his hands on them or to pull his coattails down, so he was compelled to descend again. The next time he put the nails in his mouth and took the hammer in his hand and I followed him up the ladder hanging on to his coattails. He swatted around a good little while trying to get a few nails in, and I became almost impatient for I had only my common coat on and was getting well soaked. He explained afterward that the wind kept blowing the hammer around so that three licks out of four hit the roof or his fingers instead of the nail. Finally the job was done and we rushed for cover. … The wind and rain continued through the night, but we took the advice of the Oberlin coach, ‘Cheer up, boys, there is no hope.’ We went to bed, and both slept soundly. In the morning we found the larger part of our floor under water but the kitchen and dining room were all right, the water being merely even with the under side of the floor boards. The front door step was six inches under water. The storm continued through Saturday and Sunday, but by Monday it had reared up so much that it finally fell over on its back and lay quiet.
“According to Dan Tate this storm broke all records for persistence and has been equalled by few in velocity. Five vessels came ashore between here and Cape Henry, the nearest being visible from the top of our Big Hill. My theory is that a cyclone got becalmed off this coast and could not get away again.
“The ‘whopper flying machine’ is coming on all right and will probably be done about Nov. 1st.”
That date was noteworthy, however, for an entirely different reason. A letter arrived from Chanute (written on October 24) announcing he would be arriving before long, and in the envelope was a news clipping describing Langley’s preparations for a second attempt at flying his machine. Langley was insisting—to the press, who loved a good story, and to the Army, which was paying for Langley’s expensive tests—that his problems lay with the launching mechanism and not with the machine itself.
Wilbur fretted over the news, for if the Army continued to sponsor Langley’s tests, he could be ready long before the Wrights and could have his second shot at flight before the Wrights could even attempt their first.
The brothers had had close calls before 1903, and this trip had not been without its share of problems in flying their year-old glider. Indeed, on October 3 Orville escaped only by a hair’s breadth what easily could have been a fatal accident; a sudden gust of wind literally threw him from his hip cradle and rolled him onto the lowered wing, from which position he was forced to scramble back frantically to reach the controls—barely in time to avoid a crash. In the days following, Wilbur did crash, slamming a wingtip into the ground hard enough to jostle him severely and rake a trough in the ground. And there was still another incident when a downdraft jerked the glider toward the sands despite Orville’s hard maneuvering, and a wingtip struck the side of Wilbur’s head sharply enough to give him a fine headache.